One is going to be in Stay Wild. If you’re free, come check it out!
Lately I have been spending more time alone, and it’s driving me back towards self-portraiture. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with these shots—they aren’t really something that has a home. I’m trying to escape the idea of audience though, and not let the worry about where something belongs stop me from making it. I find that watercolor collage work is too small and peaceful. Frankly, I’m not in a peaceful place, and I do a drawing and I just want to give it away as fast as possible. Self-portraits are different—there’s a sense of absurdity to it. There has to be. First of all, the selfie. It’s ridiculous and narcissistic. It is also steeped in history, from the self-portraits of Francesca Woodman to Cindy Sherman, from Man Ray to Frida Kahlo. I’m not saying I’m in any class of theirs, but maybe I’m somewhere near the same conversation. Secondly, there’s the process itself. I’ve worn masks that tip and snag on everything, I’ve caught myself blurry, I’ve wound up completely out of the frame, I’ve been in the most unflattering positions possible.
My most recent series was inspired by a portrait I found a while ago from Bex Finch of a woman floating in water. I wanted to see what I could do, so I filled the tub, set up a tripod, and dripped my way through a series of strange floating images. Out of the night, maybe three of them worked.
As always, my collaborator and best friend Tim Shannon was all support and cheering squad when I sent him the results. Last night I got home, and while Tim had said he was sending me another camera, I didn’t really realize the magnitude of his awesomeness. (In general, yes, because he’s my homie and I will always always love him. As far as the camera, I was blown away by his generosity.)
In addition to his camera, I have a grocery bag full of fabric from a yard sale this weekend, from potential backdrops to lace overlays. I’m not sure how to turn my apartment into a photo studio yet—I need to find better lighting and use what I remember from the Heroes photo shoot at Greg and Bond’s apartment to visualize what can move and what can be used. I’m not good at spatial reasoning, and I’m sort of feeling like I’m a tumbling disaster zone who’s just going to accidentally break a table by trying to stand on it, or be overwhelmed by the messiness in my life. Photography pushes all of that to the edges though, and I think that’s what I need.
These portraits are for me—as I regain strength, as I figure out what my body is capable of. As such, they aren’t really suitable for most audiences. It’s foolish to think I can put a nude or semi-nude shot up somewhere and have it received as just art. I don’t know how to dissolve the line between potentially sexual and just form… just ask anyone about Stone Nudes. I have friends who see body as form, and friends who see body as sexualized, and that’s just the way it is. I might need to find an anonymous forum for these—remove it from self-identification and also from meandering across the screen of someone who wants to know me and not see more of me than they bargained for. A few will make it up on here, but I don’t know about the rest. And I’m not worried about it.
Body is a tricky thing. It’s both intimate and not intimate at all. A body is simply a body, a functional machine made of tissues, muscles, and blood. And then, in a different light, it’s intimate and something to be carefully shared. I vacillate between feeling the preciousness of intimacy and feeling the functionality of form.
Now I have lenses, and filters, and a whole new set of things to play with, thanks to Tim Shannon. I am so lucky in my life, to be loved unconditionally. And so I’m going to explore the vacillation. I’m going to see what I can do.
I have never been comfortable in front of a camera. I think my smile is awkward, my face looks too round and my gestures are forced. I’m in continual awe of people who are just naturally photogenic like my dear friend K and her boyfriend — even simple snap shots look like something out of a catalog for Perfect Happy Couples. Perhaps one of my “problems” is just that I think my friends are beautiful. I love snapping photos with my phone and looking back at their smiles and their strength. For the most part, that’s me. Behind the lens.
It was sort of unnerving when H- turned the camera around without really asking– let’s get a picture. Smile! As a result I have great photos of us climbing at Smith and it isn’t just his helmet or him at the anchors… I’m there too. It makes me smile, and I’m glad to actually be recorded somewhere instead of just the one doing the recording.
A photograph is an interesting thing. It’s a moment, without context. I’ve been thinking a lot about context with the lamp series that I wrote about here. Thus far I’ve just been posting the images on Instagram with the tag #lampseries. Each image is paired with a quote from a book I’ve read or whatever is laying around close to hand– it’s funny how often Anne Carson and John Tyndall work their way in. Are these quotes misappropriation? I don’t think so. Do they help provide context? I doubt it.
I’ve done three sessions of photographs at this point, and I just bought some lamp oil to fill hurricane lamps and work those in. (I also broke the tripod I was using, so I’ll have to wait a little while for the next series. Or, gulp, recruit help to hold the camera.) I’m not really sure where this collection belongs, if anywhere. But I like what it’s doing to me– allowing me to wrap myself in lights and do something ridiculous, feeling silly but keeping at it. Art is ridiculous– splashes of paint, the curve of a shoulder, words scrawled on a page. This is supposed to save something? Why? Because, when you see something that resonates in your body like a plucked string– it matters. I’m not saying any of these photographs do. It’s just me, dancing around my apartment, pretending like my windows aren’t street level.
The images are slightly NSFW, so I’m embedding a PDF (lamp series) and you’ll have to click through– it’s your call.
So much, so much.
I confess, I am a little overwhelmed by things these days. The new job is similar enough that the differences are frustrating and confusing. On the plus side, when I am feeling underwater I can walk out to the balcony and listen to the actual water of the shipping channel that’s only a dock-length away from my new building. AWP is coming into town, and I haven’t even thought about the readings and panels I want to go to. So much.
So of course now is the time I choose to start a new project. I’ve been playing with the idea of self portraiture for a while now, but I haven’t actually done anything about it. Something about the intimacy of portraits seemed important to me, and with my temporary roommate again in Hawaii I found myself alone in my place, rattling around a space suddenly too large, craving contact. A good session at the climbing gym helped, but I still came home wanting exposure. I still haven’t gotten around to putting artwork up in my room and while cleaning I found the tripod my roommate left behind. White wall, tripod, camera. Go.
While I am comfortable in my own body, I am incredibly uncomfortable in front of a camera. I put on music, grabbed the nearest thing to my bed (an old train lantern I bought to replace the one I remembered from childhood), set up the camera and jumped on my bed to get the white wall behind me. I wasn’t intending to strip layers, but the jeans were too bulky in the first test shot and I looked bundled and hidden. This project is about exposure and intimacy. Off came the pants, using skin to contrast the black sweater I had on and to match the white wall and bright point of light. I haven’t done anything with photography in a long time so there are a few misfires with focal ranges that are way too small and shutter speeds that blurred things just poorly enough to look out of focus but not intentionally so. The camera display is much brighter than the resulting images, and I have to re-learn how to adjust f-stops and shutter speeds while testing it on the blank nothing my body will fill in the space between a shutter and the 10 second shutter delay.
I’m including a few of the original shots here, unedited, and some of the final edits. I’ve been published the better results on Instagram, and you can find that whole stream with the hashtag #lanternseries or #lampseries.
These were taken across two nights, and I realized that as much as I like the idea of self portraits, I might need an assistant. At first I tried to balance the lantern on my feet– crashing disaster, and I’m lucky I didn’t scorch myself with hot wax or catch anything on fire. I switched to a camp lantern after that and while the luminosity is better, I don’t know if I’m happy with the aesthetic. One costume change into a black lace dress that I have (everyone has a black lace dress, right?). I’m only just beginning this series, and I’m excited to see where it goes, though I don’t really have an outlet in mind. It’s nice to be pouring into art again, in between climbing, skiing, a new job, remembering to cook dinner…. And it’s giving me something to do in the hours between darkness and sleep that feels intimate and exposing. I suspect as I get more comfortable I’ll strip these images down more, and then I really don’t know where they’ll be able to end up. I’m sort of ok if it isn’t anywhere– it’s the process that’s interesting me right now.
Around this time last year I met my good friend K. She and I were in the same ski lesson and we became fast friends and climbing partners. When we met we were both seeing men that weren’t ideal partners and she was by my side as the dude I was seeing went our separate ways only to later reconnect and start adventuring together again. She was there when it all burned in a flaming disaster that made me so upset that I barely ate for two weeks, got horribly sick and lost my voice, and probably dropped a few pounds more than is healthy. And then I got back on my feet, threw myself into climbing and yoga and turning my body into a thing of strength. It was over this past year that K introduced me to the concept of caves; the sadcave where you cry, the angercave where you rage. I spent a lot of this past year in and out of either cave—with brief bouts out for sunshine.
The thing is—I know my life doesn’t look cave-like. Adventures are beautiful and writing is inspiring and those are the things I want to share. It’s easy to forget that what you see is a specifically catered experience. I’m working to remember that about what I see of other people’s lives, but I think it’s time I take a social media hiatus (and probably time I buy myself a happy light to combat the short winter days). There are too many weddings and babies and climbing trips that I’m not part of. I know from experience that the difficult parts aren’t what are shared. My trip to Iceland with my sister was full of disaster—but we came back to “It looked amazing!” and “What a great time you guys had!” We didn’t show the screaming argument in our hotel, or the hours spent walking on cold and wet streets only to find out that we were at the wrong zoo entrance and our guide was long gone.
Instagram is a catered collection of photographs and facebook is… I’m not really sure what facebook is. A billboard and a water-cooler and an email chain letter and a high school cafeteria all rolled into one easily bookmarked page. It’s also an easy place to organize events and coordinate carpools, and that’s been my excuse for not leaving the whole thing. I don’t like what social media does to me, but I also find it inspiring. I follow climbers and photographers and it makes me want to adventure more, create more art, and be a better and more exciting person. And that’s the problem. Better. Better than? Than who I am now? Than someone else out there? I’m too naturally competitive, with myself and everyone around me, and during the grey short days it’s easy to get caught up in an angercave.
So I’m working towards letting inspiration be inspiration without competition. Here and here are some of the photographs I’ve found through artists I follow on Instagram, and I love them. I’m working towards loving them, and not letting them pressure me into feeling as if I need to grab my camera and hit the streets.
Also: may I suggest this for your listening pleasure? I love Sharon and I’m so happy to see her with all the amazing followers she has, making music that people love. Sharon Van Etten- We Are Fine (remix). Now if only I could find that CD of hers from college with White Lines and You’re No Good on it….
I have never had any qualms about nudes. I grew up with coffee table books tracing human anatomy and nudes on the walls. I’ve modeled for art classes and done my fair share of life drawing. Bodies are bodies. Yet for some reason I’ve never actually done self-portraits of my own body. The bodies I painted in college had strips of clothing cutting into their forms, the sculptures were based on dresses or else skeletons, with flesh over bone perhaps but without any identifying features of an actual body.
I think, somewhere, I internalized the “be careful what you put out into the world– it can come back to you” lesson of sex tapes and boudoir photos surfacing and somehow applied that to my own life. Though in truth, I am not concerned with black-mail, so much as audience. I’m trying to erase the idea of audience, but it’s tricky. I do not exist in a bubble, and art, while it exists outside of my self, can trace back to my Actual Life. I do not want to make people who know me as one thing uncomfortable by being exposed to me in another light. This is why some people have very careful and catered circles of associates. Co-workers. Athletes. Artists. I’ve never been good at keeping my life in compartments– I crash family into friends and co-workers into adventure buddies. But this means my art and my life cannot exist in isolation from each other.
About a year ago I watched the documentary The Woodmans and found the photographs of Francesca Woodman. They are beautiful and haunting and often feature nude women. (She died tragically young, and the documentary is very sad, but that isn’t what this is about.) While I don’t pretend to have the skill that she has, I remember thinking– I should try something like this. I never got around to it. And then a friend sent me a link to a photo series making the rounds across social media, Stone Nudes. And I just moved into a new apartment, with a white tiled shower, a window ledge, and a sink counter at about the right height to balance my phone.
I took a series of self-portraits with a self timer and after a little bit of editing, threw the first image up onto Instagram. I included my full body, splayed against tile, though at the last minute decided to blur most of it out. Even within the blur you could see the tan line from my bathing suit bottoms and it was very clear that there was nothing in the frame beside body and background. This is a test I thought. I took the photo down within hours.
Why did this image feel like too much? I am not ashamed of my body and I still think the picture has strong composition and can hold its own. There was nothing overtly sexual about the image, nor was it intimate. It was, I think, a matter of audience. My co-workers follow my instagram account, as do friends and family. I want to say that I don’t care– but when it comes down to it, I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I’m realizing more and more, this is one of my largest artistic hurdles. I don’t mind being uncomfortable myself– I often am. But I don’t want to put other people in a place of discomfort. The co-worker that brings me fruit snacks in the afternoon is probably not someone who wants to think of me unclothed.
The images I’ve included above are ones that you can find online, on my instagram account. I’m still unsure as to whether or not the complete portraits belong online. This is the part of art that scares me– I am still toeing the line of safety. Do I have the nerve to create something and put it into the world, while ignoring the audience that receives it? I’m starting to do that with my (body) text. Maybe it’s time to jump all in, entirely, and let people sort out how they receive it.